The Writers' Loop

For Readers and Writers


Author Dave King Discusses “The Ha Ha,” Part One


Author Dave King

Author Dave King

Dave King, author of the debut novel, The Ha Ha,  graciously agreed to grant us an interview.  You can hear King speak in person on Friday, December 5th, at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.

King holds a BFA in painting and film from Cooper Union and an MFA in writing from Columbia University; he taught at Baruch College and the School of Visual Arts in New York before moving to New York University’s Gallatin School of Interdisciplinary Studies. His bestselling debut novel, The Ha Ha was a finalist for Book of the Month Club’s best Literary Fiction Award and the Quill Foundation’s award for Best Debut Fiction and was named one of the best books of 2005 by the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and

We’re immensely grateful to Dave King for his time and thoughtful responses to our interview.  We present Part I here, and will return with Part II and a report of King’s speaking event in our December 7th post.

SMP:  Your title and cover really capture one’s attention. Why did you choose this title?

DK:  I first heard of this arcane landscaping feature as an undergraduate painting student at Cooper Union, where I took an elective on the history of ha haarchitecture. I was at that time making paintings that involved visual puns, and I was struck by both the cleverness and the practicality of the concept, for a ha-ha creates a barrier without any visible wall. Essentially, it’s an optical illusion, an artificial cut in the landscape which, viewed from certain angles, becomes invisible, so that the land appears to roll on without interruption.

I suppose the idea stuck in my mind, because the ha-ha’s appearance twenty years later in my manuscript was entirely unplanned; it came to me one day as I was writing about Howard at work, and gradually, as the book developed, it became a leitmotif, this unstable private space through which he recaptures his last moments before becoming disabled.

As to why I chose it for the title: in my view, this is not a book thick with symbols, but it does include one major symbol, which is the ha-ha itself. I tend to view symbols as supporting a book’s themes, rather than, say, delineating a specific code which the reader must break into specifics, so the book can certainly be read without reference to the symbolism. But for readers who are interested in symbols, the title’s a little indicator that says, “Look here.” For example, as a landscape element, a ha-ha simply isn’t comprehensible from certain angles. Its complexity is only apparent once you get up close (just like Howard). As a break in the terrain it offers an invitation to think about surface and interiority and the possibility that what you see is less than what you get. These issues are all important to understanding Howard, and as a cut in the landscape, a ha-ha is also a kind of wound.

There’s one more reason I like the title. For many readers this is not a known term, so the way they’ll access the title first is as an element of pure sound, perhaps a parallel to Howard’s own occasional vocalizations. In any case, I liked the idea of starting with something mysterious which then is revealed.

I didn’t have anything to do with any of the book’s covers, though it’s always fun to see how the designers and marketing teams interpret a book.

SMP:  Where did you get the idea for this novel and your protagonist Howard Kapostash’s inability to speak for thirty years?

DK:  Well, the short answer is that I had a brother who was profoundly autistic, so I have a basic interest in disability and how it functions within more normally abled society. That said, I need to head off any assumption that my book is a portrait or memorial to my late brother Hank. (Only my dad was permitted to make that claim, because it gave him comfort.) As most people understand, any acquired injury like Howard’s presents very different emotional and psychological terrain from those conditions one is born with, including autism. Much of Howard’s primary anguish stems from his sense of loss—something my brother, to the best of my knowledge, did not feel.

"The Ha Ha" Paperback Edition

“The Ha Ha” Paperback Edition

Anyway, perhaps for this reason many of my early stories included variously disabled characters, usually in secondary roles. This was something I didn’t realize myself until a grad school classmate pointed it out, but when she did, it interested me, partly because it was such an unconscious gesture. Then it was quite a natural thing to move the disabled secondary character into the protagonist’s role and see how that felt. The Ha-Ha began as a story about a mute man taking his girlfriend’s child to a boxing match.

SMP: In reading “The Ha Ha,” several themes resonated for me; the plight of the communicatively impaired, generalized apathy toward wounded warriors, and drug addiction’s impact on family stability and children. Was your intention to raise awareness of these issues?

DK:  I don’t think of this as a book with an agenda—at least, not in that sense. I’m really not out to preach, and I emphatically do not believe art needs a message to be justified. I very much believe in art for art’s sake and the right of the artist to engage whatever he or she wants to engage. Nevertheless, there were a couple of things I wanted to explore.

One: the loss of the American dream as it applied to one guy who grew up with middle-class expectations of happiness and success. As someone who missed Vietnam only through the lucky shut-down of the draft, this is an issue that interests me: not exactly the fate I might have had if I’d been less fortunate, but something like that.

Secondly, I wanted to look at the kinds of families we choose to build, situationally and out of love, and how they differ from the families we’re born into.

I guess the point I’m making is that in both cases these were things I wanted to explore for myself through the process of writing the book, rather than bulletins aimed at reforming the world.

SMP: Howard carried a card stating that he was mute, but of normal intelligence. Yet strangers addressed him in a demeaning manner, as if he were retarded or deaf. Is this authentic dialog based on experiences or observations in your own life?

DK:  The novel isn’t based on anyone, and Howard is an invented character. He’s also not really a poster-boy for the noble victim, since he’s fairly touchy and closed down, with a pretty big chip on his shoulder. I wanted him to be human and have a complete and complicated personality as well as normal intelligence (and sexuality), and I believed he ought to be able to rage against his fate. Even behave badly, as he does at several points in the book. Most of the incidents in the novel were invented, but you don’t have to dig very deeply into the experiences of those who are differently abled to learn that among the biggest beefs are being misunderstood and being talked down to. Of course, part of my method in writing the book was to put myself in Howard’s shoes and imagine the ways I might handle such humiliating situations—both well and poorly.fqn_december-5-poster_king

SMP:  As a speech-language pathologist, I’m interested in knowing how you researched Howard’s speech therapy issues. (At times, I wished I could jump into your text and work with Howard’s speech.)

DK:  I started by researching brain injury, and I found that when considering the brain there are very few standard formulas. Each individual’s injury is different from the next, which gave me a lot of leeway with regard to Howard’s symptoms and issues (aphasia, alexia and so on). This also gave me a plot point which is central to the conflict: long before the events described in the book, Howard has abandoned the therapy industry in frustration over his inability to build on even small gains and his general failure to heal his language skills as he has his more physical injuries. He’s essentially said, “The hell with it,” and devoted himself to being a kind of badass, doing drugs and making a nuisance of himself, though again, this period is in the past, and by he time The Ha-Ha begins he’s pretty much cleaned up. (It may also be significant to note that his therapy period would have been in the late 1970’s, following his return from Vietnam. This was before the development of certain technologies in use today.)

So I did look at speech therapy of that era, but not as much as I looked at traumatic brain injury and recovery and their relation to language pathology. But by far the most unexpected research that I did had to do with theories of consciousness, since I was interested in whether it was even valid to compose a first-person narration by someone who could not technically compose such a narration himself.

In the end, I solved this problem by realizing that even if Howard doesn’t have sentences per se, he has ideas and emotions and thoughts and a full inner life, as we all do. So the novel is a record of that inner life, rather than a point-for-point readout of his mind at work. Of course, this is true of any first-person narrative: we don’t think in sentences—at least I don’t—so in that sense a sentence is simply the convention we use to describe the far more rich and complicated experience we call consciousness.

Colleagues take note; for our benefit, Dave added:

(By the way, as a speech pathologist, you might like to know that one of the happiest surprises of publishing this book has been hearing from people in your line of work. In fact, there’s an aphasia support group in North Carolina that I skype with once or twice a year, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.)


 Please come back next week for Part II, and read King’s discussion of his writing routines, current projects, and advice to writers like myself.

We hope you join us for King’s reading at The College of Saint Rose, Neil Hellman Library, 392 Western Ave.,  Albany, at 7:30 PM.

For more information:

Dave King’s official website:

Frequency North: The Visiting Writers Reading Series at The College of Saint Rose,




The Magic Continues With Peter Yarrow and Noel (Paul) Stookey

By Peggy Morehouse

I was five or six years old when I first heard Puff the Magic Dragon in the early sixties sung by the epic folk band Peter, Paul and Mary. The melancholy song about the loss of innocence as we age became one of my favorites along with another one of their greats, The Marvelous Toy. In my early teens I came to realize that Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t just sing songs that delighted children, but were part of an historic movement to bring peace and justice to a troubled world with songs like Blowin in the Wind and Where Have All the Flowers Gone. This trio stayed with me as I introduced their music and stories of social change to my own sons in the 1990s. Peter, Paul and Mary continue to be part of my world today as I read and sing Puff the Magic Dragon to my kindergarten students, not to mention the gig space they occupy on my iPod.

You can imagine my excitement when I met two of the three musicians at an intimate gathering at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont on November 24. Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey told stories, sang, goofed around, and talked about their new book, Peter, Paul and Mary-Fifty Years of  Music and Life. A crowd that seemed to range from 6-months to ninety-years-old enthusiastically greeted the musicians as they entered the children’s section on the second floor. Peter and Paul started the evening by singing Garden Song with a simple yet compelling message: “…Mother Earth will make you strong if you give her love and care…”


It wasn’t long before Mary Travers, who passed away in 2009, was recognized. Peter and Paul expressed how much they miss her, yet always feel her presence when they perform. Paul relayed, “Mary is here as much as she’s not here.” Peter added, “We hear her voice and know it’s real because audience members have told us they hear her too.” Although Mary wasn’t involved in writing their new book, Peter said, “The three of us blended as we walked through the pages.” They then paid tribute to her by asking the audience to sing Leaving on a Jet Plane with them.

20130201084150!Peter-paul-and-mary  IMG_0720

As the evening progressed, Peter and Paul entertained with passion and conviction in their strong, flavorful voices. Still committed to social justice, Peter sang Listen Mr. Bigot with the reprise, “The foreigners that you hate are the very same people that made America great.” He made a point of saying, “The root cause of all these issues is lack of empathy; compassion.” They both continue to back up their words with support for initiatives related to the environment, farming, race and religious freedom, just to name a few. Peter also founded Operation Respect, a nonprofit that develops non-bullying curriculum. Paul assigned all royalties from The Wedding Song to the Public Domain Foundation (Music2Life), which has donated millions to charities around the world. According to their book, Peter, Paul and Mary-Fifty Years in Music and Life, their commitment to social justice ignited as they performed at Dr. King’s March on Washington in 1963:

“As for our participation, we were three young people in our twenties who had known popularity for less than two years, but when we sang ‘Blowin in the Wind’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ that day, it changed the way we saw the world…and our role in it.” 


A highlight of their performance at Northshire was when they invited the children to come up front and sing Puff the Magic Dragon. It was evident that this song is still alive and well as the children sang the lyrics flawlessly when it was their turn at the microphone.


Peter asked one young girl where she had learned the words and she simply replied, “I just know it.” With a look of satisfaction Peter said, “You just made me so proud.”



After a hand-clapping, sing along of If I Had a Hammar, it was downstairs for the book signing where fans enjoyed some conversation and laughs with Peter and Paul.

IMG_0772 (2)

Peggy and Susanne with Peter and Paul

I can’t leave this post without sharing a video of Puff the Magic Dragon with you. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! ~ Peggy and Susanne

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“Would You Like to Swing on a Star, Carry Moonbeams Home in a Jar?”

…Or would you rather land on a comet?



Messier 6 and Comet Siding Spring ~ NASA

As I was preparing a completely different post for today, I was side tracked by the news of the European Space Agency’s mission that landed a small spacecraft on the surface of a speeding comet more than 300 million miles from Earth.  For ten years, the Rosetta spacecraft carried the 220 pound Philae lander, said to be the size of a washing machine.  On Wednesday, November 12th, Rosetta maneuvered into position and placed Philae on a comet named 67P, 2.5 miles in diameter and moving at 40,000 miles an hour.

Certainly, this isn’t the first spacecraft sent to explore a comet, but it’s the first to make this level of contact and actually land.  “Our ambitious Rosetta mission has secured a place in the history books: not only is it the first to rendezvous with and orbit a comet, but it is now also the first to deliver a lander to a comet’s surface,” posted Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general on their website.

One of the many questions that Rosetta is exploring, is whether Earth’s oceans are filled with melted comets. The rocky parts that formed the planet were dry, so water must have come from somewhere else. Perhaps comets seeded our planet with water when they crashed into Earth in its earliest days?

“Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our solar system,” Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist, said on the ESA website. “What were the conditions like at its infancy and how did it evolve? What role did comets play in this evolution? How do comets work?”

The craggy surface of the comet 67P, looking over one of Philae's feet

The craggy surface of the comet 67P, looking over one of Philae’s feet

Unfortunately, Philae’s landing placed its solar panels in a shadow, compromising the ability to restore its batteries. Despite efforts to correct the problem, by Saturday, November 15, the ESA’s Rosetta blog stated, Our lander’s asleep.  With its batteries depleted and not enough sunlight available to recharge, Philae has fallen into ‘idle mode’ for a potentially long silence. In this mode, all instruments and most systems on board are shut down.”

“Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,” said Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager. “This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”

“In theory, Philae and its scientific instruments could be reawakened as the comet gets closer to the sun in the coming months, but it’s far too early to think about that,” said Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec.

In the meantime, the Rosetta orbiter is moving back into orbit around the comet, and will perform “a series of daring flybys past the comet, some within just 8 km of its centre.”  Rosetta’s data will allow scientists to watch the short- and long-term changes as they occur on the comet.  “The data collected by Philae and Rosetta is set to make this mission a game-changer in cometary science,” said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.

It’s easy to be blasé about space exploration these days.  I mean, we’ve come a long, long way since launching poor little unsuspecting monkeys into orbit.  Much of what used to be science fiction is now reality.  Does anyone recall Buck Rogers? He’s the fictional sci-fi character buck rogerswho first appeared in 1928’s Amazing Stories, and is credited with bringing the concept of space exploration into pop culture.

Science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds commented on the ESA mission: “This is science fiction made real in terms of the achievement of the mission itself, but Rosetta is also taking us a step closer to answering science fiction’s grandest question of all: Are we alone?”  (CNN)

Speaking of science fiction, the European Space Agency released a short sci-fi movie to promote its “audacious Rosetta comet mission,” Ambition the film.

Why am I so taken with this?  Well, aren’t we all part of this universe?  Aren’t some of us taken with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, or Stephen Hawkins’  A Brief History of Time?  I am, how about you?  A couple of years ago, my engineer son introduced me to the work of Brian Greene, the theoretical physicist and string theorist, and New York Times bestselling author.  I was hooked after reading Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

If you, too,  would like to learn more about this mission, comets, and the cosmos, we have some resources and links for you.  If you are a home schooler, a parent of a child who is fascinated with the planets and space, or if you, yourself want to learn more and marvel at science’s discoveries, here are some ideas:51ZG5fPeR2L

Leap Into Space: Exploring the Universe and Your Place in It  by Nancy F. Castaldo  (see her 9/17/2014 interview archived on this blog), encourages learning about the universe through observation, experiments, and crafts. It includes the sun, the moon, Earth, Saturn, Jupiter, brown dwarfs, comets, black holes, and asteroids. It also includes astronomers from Galileo to Sally Ride.


Brian Greene has an excellent website for learning about the Universe. You can sign up for free courses of varying learner levels at Greene’s World Science U:  You can check out his books there as well:



Icarus at the Edge of Time:   “A perfect book for smart parents to read to smart children.”  Washington Post

“Page after page shows gorgeous, swirling color set in the blackness of infinity . . . Against these stunning visuals is a retelling of the classical myth of Icarus.”Wall Street Journal.



The Elegant Universe

The Elegant Universe

The Fabric of the Cosmos

The Fabric of the Cosmos

The Hidden Reality

The Hidden Reality







CS c

The Carl Sagan Portal, with an introductory video of Cosmos, links, resources and books:

The European Space Agency website for more information on space exploration and the Rosetta mission, with sections for educations, and children:,

NASA’s website with sections for the public, educators, and students:

This site details the Rosetta mission and NASA’s contribution of  three of the orbiter’s instruments and an electronics package:

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website with multiple activities,  games, and more.

You can listen to the 67P comet “sing” at:, and play the interactive Comet Quest game and operate the Rosetta spacecraft and make scientific decisions.


The Tulip Nebula  ~ NASA

The Tulip Nebula ~ NASA


Hitting the Writer’s Wall

By Peggy Morehouse

One day after running in yet another 5k, you decide you’re bored. You need a bigger challenge.

Maybe a half marathon?

Nah.  Half is never quite satisfying enough for me. A half a bowl of ice cream. A half a cup of coffee. A half-dozen roses. Half just leaves one yearning for more. So, you pick a really cool city and decide to run in its full marathon the following year. You find a group to train with. You log your progress. You rise early each morning and jog, jog, jog through heat and cold and rain.

After several months of focusing on your goal, you’ve finally arrived at the big event where you’ll dash 26 miles to the finish line.  Crowds will cheer, bands will play, beer will be poured, food will be served, and it’s all just for you. Then bam! Somewhere around the 20th mile you hit the wall. Your foot stops mid-air, but somehow manages to land on the ground. You can’t take another step. You wonder if limping across the finish line counts or if your medal will be denied. You wonder why you wanted to run in this stupid race anyway. You look around for one of those water stations that also hands out gel packs and a pep talk. It’s in sight, but your leg is cramping. You want to pull out your cell, call for a ride, and head to the beach. Your leg never cramps at the beach.


I’ve never run in a full marathon although I know several people who have. They all have a story about hitting the wall when they’re so close to finishing. Almost implausible after all that training, but I get it because I’ve hit the writing wall with my novel. I’ve spent two years with these characters on the Big Island of Hawaii and I’m tired. Tired of getting up at 4:00 a.m. to get my writing in before work. Like Bruce Springsteen sings in Dancing in the Dark, “I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book.”  I find myself leaving my laptop and looking out the window wondering what else is going on in the great big world.


But like the marathon runner who hits the wall at the 20th mile, I must break through. I’m on chapter twenty-two of my final re-write and it’s due to my editor on December 15. Am I really going to give up now to explore what’s on the other side of that window? For a bit of motivation, I looked up what one of my favorite authors, Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Edges, etc.) does when she hits the writing wall:

“Whenever I kind of have writer’s block, I don’t let myself stop writing, but I’ll back away and kind of approach things differently, like those old-fashioned college-writing-class exercises.”

Flynn went on to say that she wrote the beginning of Amy’s popular cool girl rant in Gone Girl to propel her out of a bad case of writer’s block. She also uses grilled cheese sandwiches to encourage her to the finish line. And, it seems like most marathon runners somehow manage to find the edge that makes them put one foot in front of the other until they can finally say, “The end.”

2013 Chevron Houston Marathon

Yay! they made it past mile 20!

Well, okay. Close the blog. Bring on the grilled cheese sandwich. I’m off to chapter twenty-three.





I get annoyed by exclamation fixation, how about you?   I call it that because one of Webster’s definitions for fixation is “an obsessive or unhealthy preoccupation or attachment,”  and for exclamation, “vehement expression.”

So I’ll restate: I get annoyed by obsessive or unhealthy preoccupations or attachments to vehement expression (marks), how about you?

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the exclamation point as  “…..a punctuation mark used to show a forceful way of speaking or a strong feeling.”

Western Michigan University writes that an exclamation point  “…is used to end a sentence expressing strong emotion or commands…and may be used to close images - Copyquestions that are meant to convey extreme emotion.”

If these definitions are true, then we have to calm down, folks.  We’re writing messages in histrionic overkill.  Talk about hyperbole.  (Ouch, I really wanted to use you-know-whats for those three sentences. I’m using great restraint here.)

Anyway, when I researched the topic, I was shocked to see so many forums, comments, blogs, and articles discussing the flagrant overuse, misuse, and abuse of the poor, skinny little exclamation point.  Apparently, there are tons of people in Reader Land who also notice the trend. Even the Boston Globe and the New York Times have addressed the issue.  (Some credit, too, for my restraint on that one, please.)

One issue is the use of multiple exclamation points.  One isn’t enough for some folks, every sentence - Copyevidently.  They feel their emotion so strongly that they need two, three, four, or a long line of them.  Another issue is the use of the omnipresent exclamation point, used to show any kind of emotion or no emotion at all.  (See you later!  Pretty good!  Thanks!  Will do!  Ham and cheese on rye!)   I’m sure you get the idea.  Some folks tell me they feel their text or email messages are too dull without a ton of exclamation points.  Maybe that’s what emoticons are for?  Otherwise, could every message be that exciting?  Does every little piece of information or greeting carry extreme emotion?

 Ben Yagoda, at The New York Times Opinionator, writes:

 “…what if a particular point needs to be stressed beyond where it would normally be? Well, you need to kick it up an additional notch, with another exclamation point, or three. The unsurprising result has been Weimar-level exclamation inflation, where (it sometimes seems) you have to raise your voice to a scream merely to be heard, and a sentence without blingy punctuation comes across like a whisper.”


Christopher Muther at The Boston Globe, in The Overuse of Exclamation Points! adds a new word to our lexicon, “bangorrhea.”

“This exclamation epidemic has become so dire that there’s now a name for it – the very unpleasant slang bangorrhea. Urban Dictionary goes a step further by calling bangorrhea a “grammedical” condition. Even grammar snobs are fighting figurative infection.”

“Even though I know better than to use stunt punctuation instead of thoughtful language, I often find my hand hesitating over the exclamation point,” confesses Martha Brockenbrough, author of “Things That Make Us [Sic]” and the founder of the blog the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. “Should I use one? Does it seem amateurish? Without it, does my e-mail sound bossy and abrupt?”    snoopy


Marcus Sheridan at The Sales Lion writes in Why Exclamation Points are Dead and You should Never Use them in Your Content Marketing Again:

“When you use exclamation points in your web copy, it has the opposite effect you’re looking for! …Almost every day I find myself looking at dozens of blog articles, web pages, and landing page offers that my clients have produced in an effort to teach, inform, and ultimately convert their audiences. And almost 100% of the time, when these writers…are trying to show excitement with their messaging, they end up using an exclamation point to emphasize their points…Here is the funny thing about exclamation points though: They cheapen your message… Somehow, over time, we’ve all made a psychological connection between exclamation points and “that sales guy” on your local TV commercials screaming, “Boy do we have a deal for you!!!”… the best web copy…should not include exclamation points, otherwise you greatly risk having the opposite intended effect.… great web copywriters understand how the customization of font, style, bold, sub-headers, etc. are essential to getting their message across in a way that, to the reader, ‘feels right.’ “


Empire State College Online Writing Center makes a similar point:

An exclamation point is like a traffic cop’s whistle; it demands your attention. Use an exclamation point for emphasis, usually to show surprise or some strong emotion…Exclamation points should be used sparingly. Try to rely on strong verbs, and not punctuation, to convey emotion.”

no ex pts pix

Wherever we’re going with this exclamation mania, I’m grateful that folks are writing, and I hope they continue to do so.  I hope we end up at a place where we can  rely more on precise, expressive vocabulary with meaningful sentence structure, language, rather than punctuation, to convey our messages and emotions.



Ben Yagoda

Christopher Muther

Marcus Sheridan

Further reading: